Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism: Alison Piepmeier

Written by Brittany Shoot
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Zines are quirky, individualized booklets filled with diatribes, reworkings of pop culture iconography, and all variety of personal and political narratives. They are self-produced and anti-corporate. Their production, philosophy, and aesthetic are anti-professional.
—Alison Piepmeier, Girl Zines
Zines are quirky, individualized booklets filled with diatribes, reworkings of pop culture iconography, and all variety of personal and political narratives. They are self-produced and anti-corporate. Their production, philosophy, and aesthetic are anti-professional.
—Alison Piepmeier, Girl Zines
Drawing your own pictures, writing awkward manifestos, creating maps of your hometown, and detailing your love of artists like Bikini Kill, Kate Bush, Gossip, or Sia may not seem revolutionary. Stapling your musings and collected scraps together and passing it out may just seem odd. But perhaps you've never considered the revolutionary power of zines.

The first book of its kind, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism explores the not-so-secret feminist zine culture. In it, author Alison Piepmeier unpacks the intrinsic feminist value in self-publishing without confusing generalizations or assumptions about her audience. One need not have an intimate working knowledge of past or contemporary zine culture to admire the thoughtful analysis Piepmeier presents. Throughout the book, she traces the rise of feminist pamphlet publishing, explores the nineties zine heyday that ran parallel to the rise of third wave feminism, and looks at the current healthy state of zine publishing in the United States. Contextualizing the importance of zine culture, she explains, “Positioning grrrl zines within a feminist legacy makes women’s resistance visible.” Seeking to move beyond the binaries that often constrict academic feminist analysis, she draws on the previous work of feminist media scholars like Susan Bordo and Mary Celeste Kearney.

Girl Zines also offers an assessment of often overlooked zines, such as “mama zines,” which are written by thirtysomethings with children. In addition, Piepmeier pays special attention to the ways women of color de- and reconstruct feminism to meet their needs, a process that is unfortunately all too necessary as mainstream feminism has often catered exclusively to white, middle-class women.

For young women and girls, zines have served as a particular point of departure in terms of self-identity and expression. In a world filled with male ideals, grrrl zines gave any sort of self-identified grrrl the space to create and evolve. Many grew out of cultures like the punk scene and literary circles, which were particularly hostile towards young women. Within these cultures, zinester girls created space—and resistance—in their own self-published pages.

While Piepmeier’s research is embedded in the third wave, she acknowledges that the very idea and terminology surrounding the issue of “waves” is problematic. Nevertheless, zines offer a distinctive and deeply personal vantage point from which to explore third wave activism and ideology. Indeed, Piepmeier argues that the third wave—while historically concurrent to the rise of the zine movement—demands further theoretical analysis, and it is from non-academic documents, like zines, that this theory can be culled.

Though only a few pages, Bitch magazine co-founder and editor Andi Zeisler’s introduction is noteworthy for both its honesty and humor. As anyone who loves zines knows, it’s easy to go on and on about your own connection to the culture. Instead Zeisler sums up her experience with zines—which arguably led to her founding her own zine-turned-magazine—with witty brevity. In her introduction, she explains, “There was a zine out there for every possible quirk, interest, occupation, obsession, and kink you could imagine.” She laments a zine-centric, pre-blog world without seeming like a Luddite. Or perhaps it’s just that if she is one, so am I.

Zines are in fact the precursor to today’s widespread virtual participatory media. Where blank profile spaces now ask for your favorite bands and movies, zines used to provide a completely blank slate for any artist/writer/thinker/doer interested in radical aesthetics, dismantling corporate culture, or simply looking to share vegan recipes. Zines have also provided—and arguably can still provide—a space to foster more intimate community, free from (or at least arguably less filled with) comment trolls or misogynist hackers. Cyberspace too often replicates the same structural inequalities as the real world, and some zine communities are no different. But when the ability to control one’s distribution is so central to the writing—when the medium and the message are so inextricably linked—there is arguably more protection from the anti-feminist cyber warfare too many of us know and loathe.

From a historic viewpoint, and despite what you might think, zines are more than ephemeral blog entries. Much like Girl Zines contextualizes self-publishing as part of a historical movement, self-published documents are themselves dated, subject to time-based wear and tear, and can easily be seen as made in a moment instead of living on as part of an inescapable hypertext identity. Chronicling the rise of female scrapbooking, pamphlet-making, and zine creation, it is often easy to see that women are not so much reinventing feminism as they are recontextualizing it for themselves. The permanence of printed text adds an important physical property to the collective history of zines. Perhaps zinester Lauren Jade Martin says it best:

Zines are tangible, are material. The writing is contained in an object that physically ages. Ink fades. Paper yellows. Holding a zine from even just ten years ago feels like holding an historical document. It’s easier to place it, the writing inside, and the person who wrote it, in a particular moment in time, to contextualize it. Words appearing on a computer screen, even if they are date-stamped, seem the opposite: decontextualized, ahistorical, atemporal.

Indeed, Girl Zines, as a book more than an idea, is a testament to the importance of the permanence of physical publishing. The irony of writing this for an e-zine is not lost on me. Sometimes, we just have to work with what we have.

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